SEWARD Harrie Stephen (1884–1958)
Senator for Western Australia, 1951–58 (Australian Country Party)

Central to the career of Harrie Stephen Seward, bank manager and wheat farmer, was his concern with the politics of Western Australian wheat farming. Seward was born on 26 February 1884 at Rochester in Victoria, the son of Stephen Seward, farmer and shire secretary, and his wife Mary Ellen (Nellie), née Kelleher. Harrie was educated at St Patrick’s School in Ballarat, and in 1900 joined the Commercial Banking Company in that city. From 1903 he worked for the Bank of Australasia, first in New Zealand until 1908, and then in Victoria, where he served as manager in a rural bank. Leaving the bank in 1913, he moved to Pingelly, Western Australia, where he joined his brothers as a farmer.

In August 1915 Seward enlisted in the AIF, embarking in February 1916 for France where he broke his ankle and was hospitalised in Rouen and in England. (Army records note that Seward was not to blame for the accident.) Commissioned in July 1917 as a second lieutenant, he returned to France to suffer head and leg wounds, probably at Polygon Wood, before once again being evacuated to England. In January 1918 he embarked for Australia on the Euripides, on which he served as adjutant to the quartermaster. He was discharged in 1919 and returned to Pingelly.

Seward became prominent in the Pingelly Agricultural Society and the Western Australian Primary Producers’ Association. In 1921 he endeavoured to enter the Western Australian Parliament when he stood as the Country and National Labor Party candidate for the Pingelly electorate of the Legislative Assembly. In 1930, describing himself as ‘Country Party’, he was again unsuccessful in his bid for Pingelly. He finally won the seat in 1933, and held it until 1950.[1]

In his first speech in the Legislative Assembly on 2 August 1933, Seward made his position clear—if the Labor Government passed legislation to alleviate the ‘difficulties of the primary producers’, it would have his full support. He hoped party government would ‘be done away with’ and that ‘measures will be considered solely from the aspect of the country’s well-being’. He argued that farmers (as distinct from pastoralists) should be represented in their own right on the state’s economic council. Drawing on personal experience in Victoria as well as in Western Australia, he spoke at length on ‘the rabbit invasion’ and the consequent cost of wire-netting fences. Throughout his seventeen years in the Assembly he would continue to speak on matters associated with the production of wheat. These included bulk-handling, the Agricultural Bank, rural relief, mixed farming, supervision over introduction of seeds into the state, agricultural training for ‘our youths’ and, in a state where railways had developed side by side with the wheat industry, transport. In April 1947 Seward became Minister for Railways and Minister for Transport in the Liberal–Country Party Coalition, holding the position until April 1950. In 1947 he had been successful in moving for the appointment of a Royal Commission on the Western Australian Government Railways. Subsequent to the Royal Commission’s reports of 1948 and 1949, Seward was responsible for the reopening of negotiations between Western Australia and the Commonwealth on the standardisation of railway gauges throughout Australia. During his period in the Assembly, Seward also served on five select committees.[2]

Following an electoral redistribution in 1948, at the 1950 state election Seward contested the new seat of Roe and was defeated. He then worked briefly as a fertiliser liaison officer, preparing a report on superphosphate. He continued as a member of the Pingelly Shire Council and maintained his interest in the affairs of the Country Party. He secured endorsement for the Senate and was duly elected in 1951. In his first speech in the Senate, Seward referred to his having attended, as a young man, the opening of the federal Parliament at the Exhibition Building in Melbourne on 9 May 1901. Alarmed about the number of informal votes at the 1951 election, he regretted that the youth of Western Australia, instead of becoming involved in the ‘administration of shire councils, local-governing bodies and the State Legislature, are prone to put sport in first place’. He urged an Electoral Act amendment to include the party label on the ballot paper. Turning to the waterfront, he mentioned that the Fremantle Harbour Trust had come under his jurisdiction during his term as Minister for Transport in Western Australia. He implied that with a little federal assistance Western Australia would be able to cope with ‘trouble on the wharfs’, but contradicted the ‘charge’ that he desired to abolish trade unions. As a farmer he believed ‘that every man in the community is entitled to the best working conditions that he can obtain’, and placed his trust in arbitration. He hoped that ‘at the end of the life of this Parliament . . . industrial peace and prosperity will have resumed its place in this fair country’.[3]

He remained focused on the interests of rural communities, especially in Western Australia. Transport matters, particularly in regard to the stevedoring industry, railways and roads were much to the fore. He said he was astounded that the Western Australian Government had not striven harder for a standard railway gauge from Perth to Kalgoorlie. Like many of his time, he believed the use of superphosphate and trace elements provided the answer to improved production. He monitored the Tariff Board inquiries into the cost of manufacturing sulphur from pyrites and urged that a substantial bounty be allocated to Western Australia. He argued that research funds should be granted to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation to develop cheaper methods for extracting sulphur from pyrites and to improve existing methods of manufacturing fertiliser from phosphate rock.[4]

In his quest to improve the amenities of rural residents, Seward frequently spoke of the need for better telephone services in country areas, including the provision of automatic telephone exchanges. He observed that city people had ‘any amount of amenities to make life enjoyable’, but for ‘country people’ the telephone and wireless were far more useful, adding that he was ‘positively opposed to television’. Earlier Seward had complained that it was ‘not possible for listeners in Canberra to pick up radio programmes from Western Australia’. As he considered that ‘newspapers in the eastern States completely ignore Western Australian news’, he initiated investigations as to whether the Australian Broadcasting Commission could give Canberra access to Western Australian radio. He argued for the promotion of the state’s tourist industry, particularly in the improvement of hotels. However, he did not regard the Redex around Australia road car trial as an effective way to promote the outback. The damage caused to the roads was ‘the height of lunacy’.[5]

Seward, who had decided not to stand for the November 1958 election, died, while in office, at St John of God Hospital, Subiaco, on 23 July. He was buried in the Roman Catholic portion of the Karrakatta Cemetery, following Requiem Mass in the Church of the Holy Rosary, Nedlands. On 27 February 1935, he had married, at St Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church in Narrogin, Eveline Elizabeth Brown. There were no children. At the time of his death, Seward and his wife were living at 8 Boronia Avenue, Nedlands, having moved from Pingelly some time before Seward entered the Senate. During the valedictories for Seward, senators referred to his keen insight into the effectiveness of parliamentary committees. Senator Agnes Robertson recorded that his wide experience in public life made him a valuable member of many committees, including the Public Accounts Committee. Senator Dorothy Tangney regarded Seward as one of the most ‘hard working men’ in the Senate. Senator Wood referred to the high calibre of his work on the Regulations and Ordinances Committee.

The appointment of the Country Party’s Thomas Drake-Brockman to the casual vacancy caused by Seward’s death put paid to the speculation about whether the state Labor Government would honour the convention of appointing a replacement from the same party. It was appropriate that a public storm did not erupt. As Senator Condon Byrne recounted: ‘Senator Seward was a man of quiet disposition . . . and strength of will whose like we have not seen too often in the past and possibly will not see too frequently in the future’. [6]

Harry C. J. Phillips

[1] West Australian (Perth), 12 Apr. 1933, p. 18; Countryman (Perth), 24 July 1958, p. 11; Narrogin Observer, 31 July, 1958, p. 12; WAPD, 2 Aug. 1933, p. 239; Seward, H. S.—War Service Record, B2455, NAA.

[2] WAPD, 2 Aug. 1933, pp. 236–40, 22 Aug. 1934, pp. 250–1, 20 Aug. 1935, p. 262, 16 Aug. 1938, p. 155, 24 Aug. 1944, p. 269, 30 Oct. 1946, pp. 1643–54, 13 Dec. 1946, p. 2959; WAPP, Royal Commission into the Western Australian Government Railways, reports, 1948, Report on the Standardisation and Modernisation of the Western Australian Government Railways, 1949.

[3] Elmar Zalums (comp.), Western Australian Government Publications 1829–1959, 2nd edn, NLA, Canberra, 1971, p. 3; CPD, 13 June 1951, pp. 39–43.

[4] CPD, 13 July 1951, pp. 1686–8, 27 Mar. 1957, p. 194, 11 Aug. 1954, pp. 131–5, 24 Sept. 1952, pp. 1955–6.

[5] CPD, 12 July 1951, p. 1458, 15 Sept. 1955, pp. 164, 168–9.

[6] West Australian (Perth), 23 Apr. 1958, p. 2; Narrogin Observer, 31 July, 1958, p. 12; CPD, 5 Aug. 1958, pp. 6–8, 17 Sept. 1958, p. 417; WAPD, 12 Aug. 1958, p. 14; West Australian (Perth), 24 July 1958, p. 9.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 82-85.

SEWARD Harrie Stephen (1884–1958)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1951–58

Western Australian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Pingelly, 1933–50

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1951–55

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1952–58

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1953–58